The bald bus driver who winks at me each time I climb aboard his bus, the red-haired cashier at the grocery store down the street, the black-eyed waitress who smiles shyly and remembers my “usual” large cappuccino, the spindly-legged boy selling flowers in the middle of Ben Yehuda Friday afternoons — these are the faces of Jerusalem that I pass time and again as I walk its streets, the eyes that meet mine again and again as they flash recognition of a familiar face. Our expressions warm with that comfortable casual knowledge of having seen one another before, of knowing our lives touch in simple everyday ways, of realizing our souls somehow intersect in a commonplace crossing-of-paths, though we don’t know one another’s names and our conversations never extend beyond a careless “Shalom.”
And then there are those who I don’t see more than once, but whose faces I also hold and cradle carefully in my head — images I take out again and again in my memory and will recall long after my visit to Jerusalem is finished and I’m back in the States: mothers at the Western Wall rocking little sons just beginning to sprout payot, the girl in the drugstore who wears bright red lipstick and flips her dark hair, the man heaving eight hefty grocery bags through the bus with intense difficulty.
All real flesh-and-blood faces, all living inhabitants of Israel thrusting me out on the reality of their humanity, rudely forcing me past the inhuman barriers of news stories and statistics where these faces are little more than cold hard facts and typed numbers. Little more than numbers — until, that is, one exists among them in the streets and begins to break through the faraway reports of crimes and injustice and inhumanity received back home. Until one begins to truly see the brightly-colored personalities of the Palestinians, Israelis, Jews, Christians, and Muslims behind the harsh black-and-white letters of a news article.
It is not the fault of journalism, which uses objectivity as a necessary and useful element. But too often, those faces dissolve and disappear in the concise journalistic ledes and headlines we receive in places far from Israel, and those of us at a distance from the conflict zone too easily forget there’s an intensity of human life behind the matter-of-fact numbers and the coldly-listed casualties of riots, attacks, and deaths.
Despite my best attempts to imbue these hard letters with some sense of life and some image of the people walking these streets, in the end even this post can’t help but be written in that same impersonal barrier of words — can’t help but be little more than stark, colorless signs for faraway readers rather than flesh and blood.
In the end, perhaps all I can do is engrave these faces in my mind and hope that back home in America, when reading yet another news story full of impersonal facts from the Middle East, that I’ll conjure up not the black-and-white of mere words but rather these colorful souls who bear their humanity of quirks and foibles and beauty through Jerusalem with them — the winking bus driver, the black-eyed waitress, the skinny boy selling flowers on Friday afternoons, his hands overflowing with sunflowers like bits of yellow joy…